For the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On, 360°Sound spoke with journalist and musician Travis Atria. Atria wrote the cover story on Gaye in the latest issue of the newly relaunched music publication Wax Poetics. He is the author of the books Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield and Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp. Atria has been a recording artist for the last 20 years. His latest album, Moonbrain, dropped in April.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: I understand that Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops wrote a nascent version of “What’s Going On,” but the Four Tops didn’t want to record it. How did the song idea come about and ultimately end up with Marvin Gaye?
Travis Atria: The story goes that the Four Tops were on tour in San Francisco, and while they were there, a bunch of University of Berkeley students were protesting, and a bunch of cops came and started cracking heads. For [Benson], I think it was a very profound experience. His quote was, ‘I started thinking, what the fuck is goin’ on?’ Which is basically “What’s Going On” with the profanity taken away. I don’t know if he had any of the lyrics or the concept or what. I think he just had the music. It’s hard to tell because Marvin Gaye obviously took a lot of credit. You don’t know who’s telling the truth and who wrote what. It’s very difficult to parse that. If Obie Benson conceived the song, Marvin Gaye was the midwife and gave birth to it.
I was interested to learn from your Wax Poetics article that Marvin’s conversations with his brother Frankie about Frankie’s Vietnam War experiences inspired the song “What’s Happening Brother.”
Marvin’s brother was fighting the war and came back. Of course, Marvin was just pelting him with questions about what it was like. When you find out that the song is him singing through his brother, the lyrics make so much more sense. When he says, ‘Hey baby, what’s going on? Are people still getting down where we used to go out and dance?’ That sort of stuff. ‘Can’t find no work; can’t find no job.’ He’s embodying his brother, which his brother was actually a fantastic singer and always kind of wanted his own career. I think Marvin was very jealous of his brother, and I think throughout his life helped him but also stopped him from becoming famous because he was afraid his brother would be better than him. His brother does do some backing vocals on the What’s Going On album as well.
I think that song is just so powerful and the way he sings ‘How in the world have you been?’ The vocal power of that man. I think he was one of a handful of singers in the 20th century, like Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, in that he was able to use his voice as a true instrument. He was not singing but actually conveying and interpreting emotion the way a horn player or a guitarist might. A lot on What’s Going On, and even more so on his next album, Trouble Man, he can tell you a story by humming; he doesn’t even need a lyric.
He said that he really learned how to sing while making this album. For his whole career, he felt like he had been singing too hard in the studio. He was listening to a Lester Young jazz album when he realized he can just lay back and calm down and let it happen. You can hear that a lot on “What’s Happening Brother,” he’s singing so softly and beautifully, but it’s still full of fire.
You interviewed Gaye’s biographer David Ritz for the piece. Was there anything you learned about What’s Going On from your conversations with Ritz?
In terms of the heavy social message and the beauty of that album, one of the questions that I always had is, ‘Why didn’t Marvin continue doing that in a way that Curtis Mayfield did?’ Really everything Mayfield released from 1970 through 1976 was 100% very heavy in terms of the message and the lyrics. He was talking explicitly about race in America and war. But Marvin, after he made this one beautiful statement, he didn’t really ever do it again.
I asked David Ritz what he thought Marvin would make of the times we’re living in now because they’re so close to what was happening at the time of What’s Going On. He told me that Marvin wasn’t going to be interested in all the movements. Like, he didn’t give a shit about the women’s rights movement. He wouldn’t have cared about any of these other things. He saw this stuff going on with the racism, and it spoke to him. It wasn’t necessarily like he was going to care about it in any other way. I found that interesting.
I think he probably wasn’t conscious about the other things going on at that time, and What’s Going On was like his one thing. He made it, and it was the standard for the rest of his career. It was like a blessing and a curse. He could never live up to it, but he also had made it and made his name.
Curtis Mayfield was quoted in your piece as saying, “When I first heard What’s Going On I felt like Marvin had said everything there was to be said.” Could you speak on how Gaye inspired Mayfield?
I think Marvin was one of the few guys that Curtis was paying attention to. He did not listen to any other music. He was kind of obsessed with whatever he was doing. You could hear it in his next album, Roots. There’s a song called “Underground,” which is basically what happens when radiation destroys the earth, and we all have to live underground and maybe since it’s dark down there, there will be no racism because no one can see what color your skin is. He wasn’t thinking about radiation before Marvin wrote “Mercy, Mercy Me.” He kind of turned Curtis Mayfield’s mind on to these things.
Like a lot of classic albums, What’s Going On has grown in stature over the years. Although it was acclaimed upon release, it wasn’t hailed as a masterpiece. Just last year, it became the No. 1 album on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list. What do you think has contributed to its growing acclaim?
I think it takes time to recognize any revolutionary work, any work of brilliance. What’s that quote from the Bible? ‘A prophet is never recognized in his hometown.’ Well, maybe he’s never recognized in his own time either. I think when it came out, it was so different from everything Motown was doing and also different from anything Marvin had done. I think it took a while for people to digest it. I always say the mark of a truly great work of art is popularity over time. Anything can get popular and get huge and sell 10 million copies and then be forgotten. How many hundreds of artists have done that? Something that doesn’t go away, that keeps speaking to people throughout the years, I think that’s the way you gauge it.
This is one of those albums where there’s so much truth on it. Part of that truth in America is we still haven’t figured out what to do with race and what to do with our own history. And so, of course, these issues are perennially true and relevant, which you wish they weren’t, but I think that’s one of the reasons. What can be more relevant to this absolute moment than a line like, ‘Crime is increasing, trigger happy policing’? It’s almost like he saw the future, but he didn’t. He was just looking at his own time. I think that’s what a true artist does. They take in what’s happening around them, but they see more than the average person. I think that’s why it’s lasted so long: it’s true. It’s beautiful. It’s moving. It’s virtuosic in many ways. But at its heart, it’s true.